EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 1. Pushing Beyond the Earth’s Limits: The Challenge Ahead

It is difficult to overestimate the challenges the world faces over the next half-century. Not only are there a projected 3 billion more people to feed, but there are also an estimated 5 billion people who want to diversify their diets by moving up the food chain, eating more grain-intensive livestock products. On the supply side, the world’s farmers must contend with traditional challenges, such as soil erosion and the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, but now also with newer trends such as falling water tables, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, and rising temperatures. 44

At the World Food Summit in 1996 in Rome, 185 governments plus the European Community agreed that the number of hungry people needed to be reduced by half by 2015. Between 1990–92 and 1995–97, the number did decline by some 37 million from 817 million to 780 million, or over 7 million a year—but this was much less than the 20 million per year needed to reach the 2015 target. And then things got even worse. From 1995–97 to 1999–2001, the number of hungry people in the world began to increase, rising by 18 million to 798 million. This increase in hunger is not too surprising, given the lack of growth in the world grain harvest from 1996 to 2003. 45

Against this backdrop of a slowly deteriorating food situation, there is the prospect that the Japan syndrome will soon take effect in other countries, shrinking their grain harvests. Is India’s grain production likely to peak and start declining in the next few years, much as China’s did after 1998? Or will India be able to hold off the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses and the depletion of aquifers long enough to eradicate most of its hunger? There are signs that the shrinkage in its grain area, which is a precursor to the shrinkage of overall production, may have begun.

Because aquifer depletion is recent, it is taking agricultural analysts into uncharted territory. It is clear, for example, that water tables are falling simultaneously in many countries and at an accelerating rate. Less clear is exactly when aquifers will be depleted and precisely how much this will reduce food production.

If the climate models projecting the effect of rising atmospheric CO2 levels on the earth’s temperature are anywhere near the mark, we are facing a future of higher temperatures. We do not know exactly how fast temperatures will rise, but in a world of rising temperatures, there is added reason to be concerned about world food security. 46

On another front, in Africa the spread of HIV/AIDS is threatening the food security of the entire continent as the loss of able-bodied field workers shrinks harvests. In sub-Saharan Africa, disease begets hunger and hunger begets disease. In some villages, high HIV infection rates have claimed an entire generation of young adults, leaving only the elderly and children. Without a major intervention from the outside world, the continuing spread of the virus and hunger that is cutting life expectancy in half in some countries could take Africa back to the Dark Ages. 47

In a world where the food economy has been shaped by an abundance of cheap oil, tightening world oil supplies will further complicate efforts to eradicate hunger. Modern mechanized agriculture requires large amounts of fuel for tractors, irrigation pumps, and grain drying. Rising oil prices may soon translate into rising food prices.

As we look at the prospect of swelling grain imports for Asia, where half the world’s people live, and for Africa, the second most populous continent, we have to ask where the grain will come from. The countries that dominated world grain exports for the last half-century—the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina—may not be able to export much beyond current levels. 48

U.S. grain production, though it has reached 350 million tons several times over the last two decades, has never risen much beyond this. U.S. grain exports, which two decades ago were running around 100 million tons a year, have averaged only 80 million tons in recent years as rising domestic grain use has more than absorbed any production gains. The potential for expansion in both Canada and Australia is constrained by relatively low rainfall in their grain-growing regions. Argentina’s grain production has actually declined over the last several years as land has shifted to soybeans. 49

By contrast, countries such as Russia and the Ukraine—where population has stabilized or is declining and where there is some unrealized agricultural production potential—should be able to expand their grain exports at least modestly. However, the low yields that are characteristic of northerly countries that depend heavily on spring wheat, as Russia does, will likely prevent Russia from becoming a major grain exporter. The Ukraine has a somewhat more promising potential if it can provide farmers with the economic incentives they need to expand production. So, too, do Poland and Romania. 50

Yet the likely increases in exports from these countries are small compared with the prospective import needs of China and, potentially, India. It is worth noting that the drop in China’s grain harvest of 70 million tons over five years is equal to the grain exports of Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined. 51

Argentina can expand its already large volume of soybean exports, but its growth potential for grain exports is limited by the availability of arable land. The only country that has the potential to substantially expand the world grainland area is Brazil with its vast cerrado, a savannah-like region that lies on the southern edge of the Amazon Basin. (See Chapter 9.) Because its soils require the heavy use of fertilizer and because transporting grain from Brazil’s remote interior to distant world markets is costly, it would likely take substantially higher world grain prices for Brazil to emerge as a major exporter. Beyond this, would a vast expansion of cropland in Brazil’s interior be sustainable? Or is its vulnerability to soil erosion likely to prevent it from making a long-term contribution? And what will be the price paid in the irretrievable loss of ecosystems and plant and animal species? 52

Ensuring future food security is a formidable challenge. Can we check the HIV epidemic before it so depletes Africa’s adult population that starvation stalks the land? Can we arrest the steady shrinkage in grainland area per person, eliminate the overgrazing that is converting grasslands to desert, and reduce soil erosion losses below the natural rate of new soil formation? Can we simultaneously halt the advancing deserts that are engulfing cropland, check the rising temperature that threatens to shrink harvests, arrest the fall in water tables, and protect cropland from careless conversion to nonfarm uses?

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44. United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

45. World Food Summit from FAO, The World Food Summit Goal and the Millennium Goals, Rome, 28 May–1 June 2001, at www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/003/Y0688e.htm; FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003 (Rome: 2003).

46. David B. Lobell and Gregory P. Asner, “Climate and Management Contributions to Recent Trends in U.S. Agricultural Yields,” Science, 14 February 2003, p. 1032; Shaobing Peng et al., “Rice Yields Decline with Higher Night Temperature from Global Warming,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 6 July 2004, pp. 9971–75.

47. FAO, The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Food Security, 27th Session of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome, 28 May–1 June 2001.

48. United Nations, op. cit. note 1; USDA, op. cit. note 5.

49. USDA, op. cit. note 5.

50. United Nations, op. cit. note 1; USDA, op. cit. note 5.

51. USDA, op. cit. note 5.

52. Melissa Alexander, “Focus on Brazil,” World Grain, January 2004; Marty McVey, “Brazilian Soybeans—Transportation Problems,” AgDM Newsletter, November 2000.


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